Update: New Weight Watchers Anti-Obesity App for Children Draws Criticisms

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that around 13.7 million children and adolescents from 2 to 19 years of age in the US currently are obese. Kurbo, a new weight loss app designed for children 8 to 17 years of age by the Weight Watchers organization (now re-branded WW), has drawn criticism from parents and eating disorders organizations alike. By mid-August 2019, more than 78,000 persons had signed an online petition calling on WW to withdraw the Kurbo app. One of the criticisms is that looking at before and after pictures of children who have lost weight may be a form of body-shaming and does not stress healthy eating; instead, it is geared toward weight loss.  The app, which is based on the Traffic Light System, which divides foods into red, yellow, and green groups, attempts to encourage children and teens toward eating more “green-light” foods like fruits and vegetables.

Participants have access to recipes, videos, and daily-living-focused games. The program is free, but a subscription for $69 a month includes one-on-one 15-minute virtual video sessions with specially trained, Kurbo-certified coaches. Parents receive recipes, shopping lists, and a newsletter that offers diet tips.

A recent study has analyzed the effects of the program. Dr. Victor Cueto and colleagues at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, Newark, NJ, analyzed 1,120 online participants with a mean age of 12 years and body mass indexes  greater than the 85th or 95thpercentile at baseline (JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2019;7:e14458). Dr. Cueto and colleagues reported that the children and teens participated in a median of 9 coaching sessions, and attrition rates were relatively low. Using more coaching sessions was correlated with greater weight loss during participation in the program. Notably absent was comment on any measure of potential adverse effects, including potential risks such as distress, body dissatisfaction or disordered eating thoughts or behaviors. It seems critical to assess for these risks in any further studies of this sort.

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